Building a home away from home

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Sunflower was only 16 when she came to the UK after being forced to leave her family, her home country and everything she knew. When she arrived, she was alone and didn’t speak any English. A year later she has learnt the language, settled in and started dreaming about the future. A testimony of young people’s resilience and the importance of foster care. 

All names in this blog have been changed for anonymity. 

‘My country is very hot and violent. There is no access to school or hospitals, especially if you don’t have any money. But still I didn’t want to leave. I had never left my town before and I didn’t know anything about what was out there,’ Sunflower remembers.

Her journey to the UK was long and difficult, with company the teenager has tried to forget. On arrival in England Sunflower spent her first day at the Home Office for eight hours, to do her interview. A scary experience where she cried a lot, she says. However, there was a silver lining: Veronica, the foster carer Sunflower would start living with after being interviewed, was already waiting for the teenager to arrive.

‘I wasn’t scared when I met my foster carer. I just felt strange and confused but Veronica was happy and very friendly. I was a bit shy, but she made me feel comfortable. She showed me the bedroom just for me. It was blue. It was nice!’ ‘Veronica is like a mum to me,’ Sunflower says. ‘When she looks at me, it’s like she’s looking at her own daughter. I want to stay here when I turn 18. This is my home in the UK.’

Conquering challenges together

Communication was difficult when Sunflower first arrived at Veronica’s house, but it didn’t take the two of them long to find a solution. ‘My foster sister gave me her laptop and we used it to translate everything. Then I started to watch YouTube videos in English to practice. After a month, Veronica bought me a phone which helped me translate things more easily when we were out.’ With Google Translate helping to overcome the language barrier, Sunflower and Veronica set about getting to know each other.

‘At the beginning, Veronica asked me what I like to eat and drink. She made me rice, beans and chicken, very nice! Now we cook together and I show her some recipes from my country. I also started to teach her my language. She forgets words but she is trying hard to learn.’

‘We also play games like Scrabble and cards, it’s fun. Veronica helps me with homework when I don’t understand and she explains emails from my social worker. She helps me with everything I need.’

Getting settled in the UK

Veronica and Sunflower’s social worker have also made sure that Sunflower had access to the support she needed elsewhere. In her first month in the UK, they introduced her to the British Red Cross’ RnB project for young refugees and asylum seekers aged 15-21 which Sunflower is really fond of. The project runs weekly sessions across London to help young people build connections, understand their entitlements, develop skills, improve their English and, most importantly, have fun.

Sunflower feels like she has found her feet, but it’s not always easy: ‘When I have nothing to do and just have to stay at home, I sometimes get a bit lonely’, she explains. ‘So lockdown was a very difficult time for me because we couldn’t leave the house.’ Sunflower is resourceful however and has found solace and joy in music: ‘I used to sing in church in my country and I’m starting to get confident to sing here too. I was going to have my first concert in June but it was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Now I’m teaching myself guitar and listening to music at home instead.’

Life planning

Next year, when Sunflower turns 18, she would like to stay with her foster carer. The trauma of family separation, conflict, persecution and hardship is deep rooted and according to Sunflower, the best option for her is foster care. ‘Foster carers teach us how to deal with new changes and difficulties in life and end up filling the loss that we have. Young refugees and asylum seekers need people who are like parents.’

Sunflower, who has made huge strides in her education and has even won awards for her progress, has also started dreaming about the future: ‘I want to study civil engineering because I love maths and I love drawing. Then I’ll be able to draw buildings and one day I can design new cities.’

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This blog was co-written for The Fostering Network by Sunflower and Yasmin Millican, Young Refugees Engagement Officer at the British Red Cross.

You can read Veronica's blog here.